Road races are mass start events which take place on public roads. They can be point-to-point races or long loops of five to 25 miles in length. Multiple events, held over several days, are known as stage races.
During a road race, team members work together to gain an advantage over other riders, usually designating one person as the leader for the day based on terrain, fitness and the competition. The leader’s teammates will help in any way possible, from carrying food and water, to letting him or her rest in their draft, to giving up a wheel — or a whole bike — if the leader has mechanical problems.
In a relatively short amateur race, which can last two to three hours, racers usually carry their own food and drink. They fill jersey pockets with bananas or food bars and bottles with water or an energy drink that supplies carbohydrates for fuel and electrolytes to replace those lost through perspiration. In longer pro-amateur races, which can last four hours or more, riders may have food and water distributed to them as they roll through designated “feed zones” on the side of the road.
The level of mechanical support a rider can receive also varies from race to race. In a small local road race, racers may be advised to carry their own spare tires and pumps. Larger races may provide “follow vehicles,” aboard which riders may load spare wheels. This support usually is provided on a “wheels in, wheels out” basis — if the riders have placed wheels in the van, they can take one if they flat; no wheel, no deal. If the vehicle is designated as “neutral support,” the wheels it carries are available to any rider who flats. Finally, in a major stage race, trade-team vehicles and neutral support companies form a caravan that follows the competitors with everything from spare wheels to complete bikes.
Road races are contested as an Olympic, national championship and world championship events. At the national championships, professionals and amateurs have traditionally competed separately for the road race title, while at the world championships, amateurs and professionals competed together for the first time in 1994, although the title goes to the top amateur rider. Currently, world titles are awarded for elite and under-23 men and for elite women. In 1996, for the first time, professionals competed in the Olympic Games.